NHRA PSM after the Gators: a Vision or Mirage?

Now that time has passed and rules have changed, what are your thoughts about the Gatornationals NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle (PSM) opener and the coming season?

Gaige Herrera (featured photo above) came away with another win in Gainesville, and yes, he did lead qualifying throughout the weekend, but the event that was the site of his first career PSM victory a year ago seemed to hold a lot of promise for a competitive season to come. Or am I just projecting my own hopes of something interesting to happen onto a forgone conclusion?

The Gainesville semis boiled down to two Vance & Hines Suzukis—Herrera’s and the Maple Grove/Nitrofish rental bike ridden by 2010 champ LE Tonglet—versus the Matt Smith Racing (MSR) Buells of 6X champ Matt and Angie Smith, with each pairing a Suzuki vs. Buell match-up. That’s a good mix, right?

LE was hanging out his left leg to keep the bike in the groove, and that was enough to give Smith the advantage for the win. An .037 advantage at the tree and .068 advantage to the 60 put Gaige way ahead of Angie early in their pair.

Here’s what Gaige’s tree and 60 foot advantages looked like to my camera.

Angie was fortunate to be racing at all after not getting down the track in each of Friday’s qualifying sessions. A crank sensor failure in Q1 hid a clutch problem, which reeled it’s ugly head and totally failed in Q2. Angie was so upset/pissed that she legged the bike all the way back to the MSR pit, and anyone who’s ever commuted from the bike pits to the Gainesville starting line knows it’s not a short jog.

Angie dismounts after her Q2 clutch failure.

Angie (and Gladstone) both faced a long Saturday rain delay sitting outside of the 16 bike field looking in. Both were sure they would get qualified with one more shot, but would the weather allow that shot? Each break in the rain was met with fresh showers until finally the weather changed. Gladstone just barely made it to 16th, but Angie shot all the way to fifth and ran a sharp 6.691 at 203.61 in E1. Out of the field were Hoosiers Wesley Wells and Hector Arana Sr. Somebody please see that Wes has a spare motor.

It was disappointing to see Hector Sr. get bumped out of the field in his first race in a few years.

Here’s an interview with Angie talking about her weekend:

Gladstone and the Cory Reed team found themselves with similar results as last year’s Gators but in completely different circumstances. Pre-Gators testing in 2023 was a disaster for the team, with multiple brand new Vance & Hines motors disassembling themselves. That put them behind the 8 ball at the Gators and left their relationship with V&H in tatters. This year, the team was one of just a few that went to Bradenton to test on Thursday after the Tuesday and Wednesday Gainesville testing was rained out. But Joey’s bike plunged off the end of the track in Bradenton, once again putting the team behind. As teams were preparing to go to the lanes for Q1, Gladstone’s valve cover was still off and the team was in full-on thrash mode.

Joey Gladstone in the lanes

Needless to say, Joey did not advance past Gaige in E1. Last year, Joey advanced past a redlighting Steve Johnson in E1, only to redlight himself against Angie in E2. Back then, the fate of their team’s motors was in V&H’s hands. Now with their own KB/Titan engine program, their fate—for better or worse—will be determined in Mooresville instead of Brownsburg.

Speaking of Gladstone and last year’s V&H engines, Matt Smith talks in the video below about finding something different in Joey’s V&H 4V head last year than the one V&H sold him. He also lobbies NHRA to ban Sunoco “Red” fuel, which did indeed happen a little over a week later.

In addition to the Red fuel ban, NHRA has mandated ECU firmware regulations. For instance, all Motec ECUs must run the same firmware version—the 2017 version, I’m told. A prominent Suzuki tuner I talked to said neither of these changes should affect his bikes’ performance.

But still, Gaige—who was also the No. 1 qualifier—won his sixth straight race dating back to his 2023 championship season and earned his 12th career victory. He put together four straight runs in the 6.60s at more than 200 mph, defeating Joey Gladstone’s KB/Titan Suzuki, and John Hall and Angie (both on MSR Buells). That included a track-record best of 6.629 at 204.54 in the second round against Hall, which was the second-quickest run in class history, behind only his record-setting run last year in Dallas. Johnny Balls brings out the best in all racers!

The final between Smith and Herrera

In the final round against Matthew, Gaige ran a 6.636 at 204.39 for the win. Matt went to the finals for the 76th time in his career thanks to round wins against Chris Bostick (WAR Suzuki), Marc Ingwersen (Buell) and Tonglet.

“Today was good and we ran really well,” Herrera said. “The weather was really close to Dallas (last season), where I set the national record. Everyone kind of picked up in the class and we expected to as well. Overall, I had a very consistent motorcycle.

“We actually hurt the motor in the semifinals, so we had to swap motors for the finals. Overall, I had a very consistent, smooth motorcycle all day. As long as I didn’t miss a beat, the bike didn’t miss a beat. Even though I didn’t do any testing during the off-season, it felt like I didn’t even have an off-season and I’m glad to come home with a win.”

Gaige had plenty to say in the media center press conferences. Here he is on Friday and Sunday:

A pretty dominating performance, so why did I leave the event feeling good about the coming season? Nothing against Gaige, but I like to see different winners at the end of the day.

LE and Richard will both do better down the road. In retrospect, they did as well as you can expect for their first weekend out with no real testing, or no testing at all. Which of them will be first to grab a Wally this year?

Here’s my interview with Richard:

It’s great seeing LE and the whole Tonglet family back at the track where they belong. Vance and Hines could not have done themselves a bigger PR favor than to rent to LE and hire Richard to go along with with Gaige. They just won the hearts and minds of the all-motorcycle drag racing series community,  which has been tough—if not impossible—for them to do all these years. Further proof that that other media outlet is incapable of reading the room.

The Tonglets!

As evidenced by the Gainesville semis, Tonglet along with the V&H team bikes and the Smiths make up the top tier of the field. No real surprises there. On to the next level.

We’ve already mentioned Gladstone and Reed Racing. The KB/Titan program is an unknown and will be interesting to watch. We all know that Joey and the team can deliver.

Hector Arana Jr.—or more properly, Hector III

He’s always in the mix for top tier, but you never really know which Hector Arana Jr. is going to show up at the track. His ninth qualifying position and first round redlight exit against Hall are not what we expect from this proven race winner. Let’s hope the real H2 shows up at most of the races this year in order to keep things interesting.

John Hall’s first 200 mph lap

2023 did not yield the results that John Hall hoped for, but so far so good for his move back to an MSR Buell. His Gatornationals showed that he’s basically got the same performance as anyone else under the MSR trailer, now it’s up to him to keep up the good work and be there when the opportunities to get around those V&H Suzukis present themselves. Definitely a semifinal or more are in the cards for Johnny Balls.

Chase Van Sant and the Trick-Tools WAR Suzuki

The White Alligator Racing team that Hall raced for last year could have had a better outing. Riders Chase Van Sant and Chris Bostick qualified 7th and 15th, respectively. Bostick improved every lap before falling—as could be expected—against Matt in E1. Van Sant also lost in E1, shouldering some of the blame himself for his .067 light against Marc Ingwersen. WAR owner/tuner Tim Kulungian shouldered the burden for Van Sant’s 6.897 ET. “I made mistakes in two areas of the run,” Kulungian said. “I’ll fix that for next time.”

Van Sant proved his skills in winning NHRA’s Rookie of the Year last season, and Kulungian has proven himself over and over. They could definitely catch an opportunity to win. Bostick is happy and comfortable in his new role as renter and that attitude could see this returned veteran achieving results with WAR.

Once Tim Kunlungian gets accustomed to owning and running his new business, and is able to concentrate on making horsepower, this team will be back at the top level of the class.

Chris Bostick

Jianna Evaristo

Jianna Evaristo is another rider happy with her team and ready to deliver. Poor Jianna has faced lots of calamity in her career and stood up to it all. At Gainesville, her tire deflated at the end of a qualifying run. She qualified 12th and lost to teammate Angie in E1.

Jianna’s flat tire

Before he got swept up in the recent drama created by that other media outlet, Steve Johnson had a pretty decent weekend in Gainesville. He qualified 4th, which in this field was very good. But he couldn’t outrun Angie and lost in E2. Johnson is gonna show up one week and look like a potential champion and the next week look like he’s just learning how to do this  But never count out Steve for a win, especially with Jock on the team.

Steve Johnson

Johnson’s first round victim was Ryan Oehler, who was the first to detail how disappointing the Gainesville opener was for him and his team. Like Johnson, it’s good for the show if an independent like Ryan gets back in the winners circle.  They just need to get their head out of their ass and get back to where they were, back to the race-winning performance they had. You can hear his candidness in this video:

Marc Ingwersen’s sharp .019 helped him put away Van Sant in E1, but his -.004 push against Matt Smith in E2 finished his day. Along with builder/tuners Jon and Parker Miller, this team is always one alignment of the stars away from a win.

Marc Ingwersen

Kelly Clontz has shown that she can post a winning ET. If she and husband/tuner Chris can put together a string of those, she could easily help fill an all-V&H semifinal—or more. This union-strong team has got the tools to do the job. I want them in my foxhole!

Kelly and Chris Clontz

Last we come to the team that I’ve had a long, month-to-month, Midwestern connection with—Mark Paquette and Bud Yoder. The FuelTech controlled G2-bodied Buell ridden by Bud had a strong showing at the Gators following a tough Thursday test session for the team. Team owner Paquette’s EBR-bodied Buell suffered an internal parts failure in the test and the team focused their attention on Yoder’s bike for the Gators. Pro Street legend Yoder is still new to Pro Stock Motorcycle, but qualified solidly and posted his first 6 second pass.

Bud Yoder

I love the way Paquette and  Yoder worked themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves in Bradenton. Like Gladstone and his team, these guys were thrashing to make E1. “It’s not a good time,” Bud said to me in the heat of the moment, as I was obviously there to talk. But they made the show that round when others didn’t.

As a pair that’s really just learning the tools that they have, and Bud still very much just learning to ride a Pro Stock Bike, this team has as much potential to advance to the next level as anybody. Bud was telling me about how on one of his qualifying passes that the tire shook and his Pro Street instinct told him to shift. “That was the wrong thing to do,” Bud told me. “I need to just ride through it and go on.” I don’t see them winning a race anytime soon, but I do see them moving up in the order if they stick with it.

“With the help of FuelTech, we had some of the best 60 foots in the class,” noted Paquette. “We averaged the third quickest to the 60 foot. We will regroup and come back stronger at zMAX.”

zMAX in April…..the 4-Wide….Who will be 4-Wide strong? While Gaige is still the runaway favorite, there’s a lot of potential energy in the PSM field that showed up in Gainesville. We’re also gonna get a lot of people come in and run their one race or two races or local race or whatever this season, and that’ll be fun to add to the mix. Chris Garner-Jones, Terry Martin, Joey Brandgard, Dystany Spurlock and Kim Morrell are just some of the names that come to mind.

It’s going to be a great season of Pro Stock Motorcycle and Eatmyink will be there for you with news you can use.

Here’s a slideshow and gallery link to all my edited photos from Gainesville.

story and photos by Tim Hailey

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,